Fretting over a ‘valley of death’ for basic CCS research | Global CCS Institute

As Christopher Short pointed out on these pages earlier this week, American Electric Power (AEP)’s recently suspended operations at its Mountaineer project in West Virginia, a move which underscores how policy uncertainty is having a corrosive effect on viable CCS projects. Short reminds us that, based on Global CCS Institute projects data, Mountaineer is just one of a half dozen US projects that have been shelved partly because of a lack of federal carbon policy. 

There’s a second troubling dimension to this policy problem that occurred to me while catching up on what should otherwise pass for good news in the realm of CCS research and development.

In investment circles, the phenomenon is known as the ‘valley of death’. It happens when promising early-stage technologies fail not for lack of groundbreaking performance improvements, but for a lack of finance or other business-related barrier to scaling.

In the case of CCS, the absence of clear policy means that promising research has fewer paths to scale up for commercial  deployment.

Here’s what brought the thought to mind. On 12 June, just two days before AEP’s announcement, the US Department of Energy (DOE) expanded by three the group of projects designed to confirm the safety of long-term sequestration of CO2. (Find details of the projects further down.)

It’s welcome news, of course, but given the AEP news, generally dim prospects for US carbon policy, and resulting indecision among both private and public-sector players, there’s a worrisome question over how the results of the DOE’s valuable CCS research can evolve.

Take a step back. Much has been written about the failings of the US R&D machine. The country is inarguably blessed with many of the planet’s finest research universities, and is famously skilled at incubating discoveries. But we’re notoriously poor at commercializing those advances. Exceptions exist, to be sure, such as IT and software, but the spectre of ‘invented here, built there’ haunts much of US economic and job growth policy discussions.

Now there’s reason to argue that just such a pattern is setting up in CCS. And there’s certainly risk that a ‘valley of death’ may open up, distancing CCS R&D  projects from crucial commercialization opportunities.

The DOE is seeding numerous R&D projects, but there’s a decreasing population of commercial players who can take on the risk of commercializing them. Likewise, talented researchers drawn to carbon related technical fields face dimmer prospects with the erosion of mid-stage projects.

Now, back to the good news. Cribbing from Carbon Capture Journal, here are details of the projects being newly funded. Funding for the trio will total $34.5 million over four years:

* Blackhorse Energy, based in Houston, Texas, plans to inject approximately 53,000 tons of CO2 into a geologic formation located in Livingston Parish, Louisiana. The project will assess the suitability of strandplain geologic formations for future large-scale geologic storage of CO2 in association with enhanced oil recovery. Additionally, they will test the efficacy of increased storage using short-radius horizontal well technology to inject supercritical CO2 and CO2 foam into the reservoir.

* The University of Kansas Center for Research, in Lawrence, Kansas, will inject at least 70,000 metric tons of CO2 into multiple formations. The project will demonstrate the application of state-of-the-art monitoring, verification, and accounting tools and techniques to monitor and visualize the injected CO2 plume and establish best practice methodologies for MVA and closure in ‘shelf clastic’ and ‘shelf carbonate’ geologic formations.

* Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, in Blacksburg, Virginia, will test the properties of coal seams, and evaluate the potential for enhanced coalbed methane recovery by injecting approximately 20,000 tons of CO2 into un-mineable coalbeds. (Click here for further details at Carbon Capture Journal.)

As a signal of continuing commitment to CCS, this is encouraging. Given political realities in the US, where legislative policy is blocked by partisan politics, the White House is smart to use federal agencies—the DOE and Environmental Protection Agency, mainly—to spur the climate policy agenda.

But in the absence of full-blown federal policy, I can only wonder: how far can this approach really go, for how long?